• English
  • العربية
  • 中文
  • Français
  • Русский
  • Español

You are here

Nuclear Weapons and the Search for Security

Vienna, Austria

Seoul, Republic of Korea
54th Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs: "Bridging a Divided World Through International Cooperation and Disarmament"

Diplomacy versus coercion. Collective versus unilateral action. Security achieved through isolation and containment versus security achieved through dialogue and integration.

These debates are not new. But they have taken on new life as new generations struggle at regional and global levels to cope with renewed fears and insecurities, in unfamiliar forms and dimensions: the resurrection of old conflicts, the rise in terrorism, and the ever-present and ever-evolving threat of weapons of mass destruction.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) remains the global anchor for humanity´s efforts to curb nuclear proliferation and move towards nuclear disarmament. There is no doubt that the implementation of the NPT continues to provide important security benefits - by providing assurance that, in the great majority of non-nuclear-weapon States, nuclear energy is not being misused for weapon purposes. The NPT is also the only binding agreement in which all five of the nuclear-weapon States have committed themselves to move forward on disarmament. Although the NPT is sometimes mis-perceived as a Western project, its benefits extend across any North–South or East–West geopolitical divide.

Still, for those of us who have worked as "custodians" of the Treaty for over three decades, it is clear that the events of the past few years have placed the NPT and the regime supporting it under unprecedented stress, exposing some of its limitations and pointing to areas that need to be strengthened and adjusted. Today I would like to discuss some of the lessons that can be taken from the experience of the IAEA in verifying undeclared nuclear programmes in Iraq, Iran, Libya and the Democratic People´s Republic of Korea. And because I have an audience that shares my conviction that international peace and security cannot be achieved without effective arms control, I will share a few ideas on the roles each of us can play – as scientists, policy makers and other members of civil society.

Recent Lessons In Nuclear Verification

The first lesson — and perhaps the most important lesson not only for the IAEA but also for the international community — is that verification and diplomacy, used in conjunction, can be effective. When inspections are accompanied by adequate authority, aided by all available information, backed by a credible compliance mechanism, and supported by international consensus, the verification system works. The Iraq experience has demonstrated that inspections — while requiring time and patience — can be effective even when the country under inspection is providing less than active cooperation.

A key aspect of this effectiveness — adequate authority — can only be achieved in those countries that accept the so-called "additional protocol" as a supplement to their NPT safeguards agreement. The additional protocol provides the Agency with significant additional authority with regard to both information and physical access. As illustrated by the IAEA´s experience in Iraq before the first Gulf War, without the authority provided by the protocol, our ability to verify nuclear activities is mostly limited to the nuclear material already declared — with little authority to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material or activities. Even with the additional protocol, IAEA verification capabilities are not without limitations; but our recent efforts in Iran, Libya and elsewhere have made clear how much can be uncovered when the protocol is applied.

The second lesson, illustrated by the evolution of the North Korean situation, is that we cannot afford not to act in cases of non-compliance. The Democratic People´s Republic of Korea (DPRK) took seven years to fulfill its obligations under the NPT to conclude a safeguards agreement with the Agency. And since 1992, shortly after this agreement was concluded, the DPRK has been in non-compliance with its NPT obligations. In January 2003, the DPRK capped that non-compliance by declaring its withdrawal from the NPT. Naturally, all of these actions were promptly reported by the Agency to the Security Council — but with little to no response. This type of reaction by the Council may be setting the worst precedent of all, if it conveys the message that acquiring a nuclear deterrent, by whatever means, will neutralize any compliance mechanism and bring about preferred treatment. On the other hand, I would note that verification and diplomacy have been an important part of the success so far in Iran and Libya, and in that sense I can only hope that the continuation of the six-party talks on the DPRK nuclear programme will yield results that will include, inter alia, full IAEA verification.

The third lesson is that international efforts to inhibit the spread of technology through the use of export controls have not been effective. The most disturbing insight to emerge from our work in Iran and Libya has been the revelation of an extensive illicit market for the supply of nuclear items. The relative ease with which a multinational illicit network could be set up and operated demonstrates the inadequacy of the present export control system. The fact that so many companies could be involved (more than two dozen, by last count) — and that, in most cases, this could occur apparently without the knowledge of their own governments — points to the shortcomings of national systems for oversight of sensitive equipment and technology. Moreover, international cooperation on export controls relies on informal arrangements that are not only non-binding, but also limited in membership, and many countries with growing industrial capacity are not included. And at present, export control information is not systematically shared with the Agency.

Clearly, we must change our assumptions regarding the inaccessibility of nuclear technology. In a modern society characterized by electronic information exchange, interlinked financial systems, and global trade, the control of access to nuclear weapons technology has grown increasingly difficult. The technical barriers to mastering the essential steps of uranium enrichment — and to designing weapons — have eroded over time. Much of the hardware in question is "dual use", and the sheer diversity of technology has made it much more difficult to control or even track procurement and sales.

We can only conclude that the control of technology is not in itself a sufficient barrier against further proliferation. For an increasing number of countries with a highly developed industrial infrastructure — and in some cases access to high enriched uranium or plutonium — the NPT community must rely primarily on continued good intentions as the basis for the adherence of these countries to their non-proliferation commitments. And good intentions can rapidly be over-run by a heightened sense of insecurity. Obviously, the narrow margin of insurance this affords is worrisome.

Lesson four: insecurity breeds proliferation. It is instructive that nearly all nuclear proliferation concerns arise in regions of longstanding tension. In other words, nuclear proliferation is a symptom, and the patient cannot ultimately be cured as long as we leave unaddressed the underlying causes of insecurity and instability — such as regional rivalries, the chronic lack of good governance, the divide between rich and poor, and cultural schisms based on ethnic, racial or religious differences.

It is in this context that I have also begun to stress not only the value but also the limitations of the IAEA´s role. While the Agency can use verification effectively to bring to closure questions of compliance with legal and technical requirements, the long term value of these efforts can only be realized to the extent that they are followed by the necessary political dialogue among concerned States to address underlying issues of insecurity, and to build confidence and trust.

Exploiting the Window of Opportunity

Whatever value the concept of nuclear deterrence may have served during the Cold War, as the volatile currency on which the standoff between two superpowers was balanced, it should be clear that nuclear weapons today serve only as an obstacle to peace and security. They have become the ultimate "elephant in the parlor". For the five countries recognized as nuclear-weapon States under the NPT, their nuclear arsenals are increasingly becoming either a focal point for resentment or cynicism among the nuclear "have-nots", or, worse, a target for emulation for States that wish to pursue clandestine WMD programmes. Russia and the United States have long ago lost their appetite for mutually assured destruction, and now find themselves in the absurd situation of collaborating to guard against accidental launch while simultaneously maintaining, as a stubborn legacy, a hair trigger readiness for catastrophic exchange. In the Middle East and here on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear weapons — as well as real or perceived nuclear weapons ambitions — are a stumbling block that trips up attempts to resolve regional tensions.

It is the height of irony that, in today´s security environment, the only actors who presumably would find the world´s most powerful weapons useful — and would deploy them without hesitation — would be a sub-national or extra-national extremist group. A nuclear deterrent is absolutely ineffective against such groups; they have no cities that can be bombed in response, nor are they focused on self-preservation. But even as we take urgent measures to protect against nuclear terrorism, even as more and more analysts discuss the likelihood of these efforts being thwarted and such a nuclear "nightmare" occurring, we remain sluggish and unconvinced about the need to rapidly rid ourselves of the 30 000 nuclear warheads around the world, poised for use.

Why? The answer, in my view, is that the international community has not been successful to date in creating a viable alternative to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence as the basis for international security. Nuclear weapons will not go away until a proven collective security framework exists to fill the vacuum. The aftermath of the Cold War should have served as the logical lead-in to such an effort. The resulting changes to the international security landscape have been obvious; it is only that we have lacked the vision and the initiative to adapt to these changes.

If there is any silver lining to this dark cloud, it is that the window of opportunity is still open. The efforts to counteract Iraq´s phantom weapons of mass destruction, to unveil a clandestine nuclear weapon programmes in Libya, to understand the extent and nature of Iran´s nuclear programme, to bring the DPRK back to the NPT regime, and to prevent nuclear terrorism have all brought worldwide attention to bear on issues of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security. That energy is ours to harness. If we are ever to build a global security culture based on human solidarity — a collective security framework that will serve the interests of all countries equally, and make reliance on nuclear weapons obsolete — the time is now.

The Responsibility for Action

The question remains, how? Whose role is it to create this collective security framework? Is this an initiative for policy makers? The UN Security Council? The scientific community?

The answer, of course, is yes. It will take all of us. Progress must be made on all fronts — political, scientific and social. We must all take the responsibility for action. I do not presume to have all the answers, but I do know that the answer is not nuclear weapons. I would like to spend my remaining minutes outlining what I see as the role of leadership in each of these spheres.

The Political Front: Roles for Policy Makers and Political Leaders
Let me first turn to the political and policy front. In this area, responsible leadership must be focused on restoring and strengthening the credibility of multilateral approaches to resolving conflicts and threats to international security. The system of collective security hoped for in the United Nations Charter has never been made fully functional and effective. This must be our starting point.

The Security Council must be able and ready to engage effectively in both preventive diplomacy and enforcement measures, with the tools and methods in place necessary to cope with existing and emerging threats to international peace and security. This should include mechanisms for preventive diplomacy to settle emerging disputes within and among nations — which, if left unchecked, would, in the language of the UN charter, "lead to threats to international peace and security". The Security Council should also have, at the ready, "smart" sanctions that can target a government without adding misery to its citizens; and adequate forces to deal with the foreseeable range of situations — from maintaining law and order, to monitoring borders, to combating aggression.

A functional system for collective security is the only alternative to the reliance that some nations, including nuclear weapon States and their allies, now place on nuclear deterrence — in a "good guys versus bad guys" approach that inevitably leaves some nations out in the cold and seeking to achieve parity. A functional system for collective security is the only alternative to the current hodge-podge of approaches to addressing security issues — ranging from inaction or late action on the part of the international community, to unilateral and "self-help" solutions on the part of individual States or groups of States.

With a viable system of collective security in place, policy makers and political leaders may find it easier to make progress on other vital objectives, such as bringing into force the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, negotiating an internationally verifiable Fissile Material (Cut-Off) Treaty, and putting in place a concrete roadmap for irreversible nuclear disarmament, involving not only the NPT nuclear-weapon States but also India, Pakistan and Israel.

The development and demonstration of a collective security framework will not occur overnight, and the difficulty of achieving our ultimate objective — the elimination of all nuclear weapons — should not be used, in any sense, as a pretext for failing to achieve the intermediate step of drastic reductions in existing nuclear arsenals. In addition, there are a broad range of actions we should actively pursue to strengthen the existing non-proliferation regime, including: urging all States to bring the additional protocol into force; tightening and formalizing the controls over the export of nuclear materials and technology; working towards multilateral control over the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle — enrichment, reprocessing, and the management and disposal of spent fuel — while guaranteeing the reliability of supply to legitimate would-be users; and ensuring that States cannot withdraw from the NPT without clear consequences, including prompt review and appropriate action by the Security Council. Each of these measures would be in keeping with a collective security framework that aims simultaneously to curb nuclear proliferation and to achieve nuclear disarmament.

Striving for nuclear disarmament is not an idealistic march towards an unachievable Utopia. Just last month, seven prominent policy makers, the foreign ministers of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden spoke out jointly, saying: "Today, we are more convinced than ever that nuclear disarmament is imperative for international peace and security." They added, "Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament are two sides of the same coin, and both must be energetically pursued." I could not agree more. It is this type of leadership that is urgently needed.

The Scientific Front: Roles for Researchers and Inventors
The second front is one with which many of you are familiar — the role of scientists in advancing non-proliferation and disarmament objectives. In reflecting on the responsibility for action that lies with the scientific community, I cannot be more eloquent than Sir Joseph Rotblat — when he said that concepts of science as a politically or morally neutral activity are "remnants of the ivory tower mentality, although the ivory tower [of science] was finally demolished by the Hiroshima bomb."

Science brought us the atom bomb. And if we are to rid ourselves of nuclear weapons, we will need an equally intensive effort on the part of scientific researchers and inventors — to develop innovative tools for nuclear verification, mechanisms for reducing the proliferation potential of nuclear material and technology, and techniques for dismantling and destroying nuclear weapons.

In the area of nuclear verification, for example, advances in environmental sampling and analysis techniques are enabling IAEA inspectors to determine, with far greater precision, the nature and origin of individual particles of uranium — and thereby to slowly unravel the tangled pathways of the illicit nuclear procurement network. Satellite imagery technology and advanced information analysis techniques have also broadened the range of inspection capabilities.

It is important, in our search for security, that we not forget the positive aspect of "Atoms for Peace" — namely, ensuring that peaceful uses of nuclear energy remain available to all. Nuclear science plays a key role in enabling humanitarian benefits essential to development, such as: diagnosing and curing cancer patients; studying child nutrition; providing higher yielding, disease resistant crops to farmers in developing countries; characterizing and reducing airborne and waterborne pollution; analysing climate change; and, not least, producing 16% of the world’s electricity, with almost no greenhouse gas emissions. The importance of continued scientific achievement in these and other areas should not be underestimated.

Scientific research and invention is needed, however, to make the nuclear fuel cycle more sustainable and more proliferation resistant. Advanced power reactor fuel cycles are under development that would use fissile and fertile materials more efficiently, enhance proliferation resistance through the use of new fuel types and configurations, and mitigate the volume and radio-toxicity of high level and long lived wastes.

The Social Front: Roles for Every Concerned Citizen
The third front is that of society — the battle for hearts and minds — in which every concerned citizen shares a distinct responsibility for action. In countries ranging from the most powerful to some of the least industrially developed, the voice of the citizen is increasingly a weapon in the political debate. It is vital that we engage individuals from all sectors of society in a public dialogue — to remind them of the continued extant danger of nuclear war, to explain to them the alternatives available, and to offer avenues for involvement. This dialogue must be stimulated not only in large Western States but in countries across the globe. Organizations like Pugwash should continue to work to develop and refine proposals for action, to bring them to the attention of governments and opinion leaders, and to promote informed public discourse on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament that will become too forceful and too authoritative to be ignored.

The nuclear genie is out of the box — but it remains, at least at present, at the bidding of its human makers. May it not ultimately be said of our society that we created the inventions that led to our own demise.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018


  1. Employment
  2. Women
  3. Press

Stay in touch